End-of-life care for patients with end-stage liver disease cost more than four of the five most expensive chronic medical conditions, according to the findings of a population-based study in Canada.

Hospital room, blurred monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

During their final year of life, patients with end-stage liver disease incurred a median of $51,191 Canadian dollars in health care costs (interquartile range, $28,510-$86,659) – approximately $2,360 more than ischemic heart disease, $1,830 more than diabetes, $1,600 more than mental health disorders, and $600 more than congestive heart failure, Erin M. Kelly, MD, of the University of Ottawa, and her associates wrote in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Only chronic renal disease cost more (median, $55,453). Most health care costs of end-stage liver disease covered the final 90 days of life and were tied to high use of hospital resources, the researchers said.

In the United States, more than 150,000 patients are hospitalized for end-stage liver disease every year at a price tag of $4 billion, Dr. Kelly and her associates noted. This price tag is expected to rise further because of epidemic levels of obesity and related nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The shortage of livers for transplantation and the fact that many patients with cirrhosis are not transplantation candidates leave many in end-of-life care. Given the lack of population-level data on costs of this care, the researchers studied data for all individuals who died in Ontario – Canada’s largest province – between April 2010 and March 2013. The data source was the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, a nonprofit group that tracks diagnoses, health care, outcomes, and costs.

Among 264,723 decedents, 5,087 (1.9%) had a diagnosis of end-stage liver disease. These patients died a median of 15 years earlier than other patients (median age of death, 65 vs. 80 years old). During the last year of life, 99% visited the emergency department or were hospitalized, compared with 86% of other patients. Importantly, health care costs for the two groups were similar up until the final 90 days of life, when there was “a clear divergence,” the researchers said. A total of 51% of the costs of the final 12 months of care related to acute care during the final 90 days of life. Consequently, during their last 3 months, patients with end-stage liver disease cost the health care system 46% more than other individuals, the difference remained statistically significant after accounting for demographics and comorbidities, and the picture changed little after excluding transplantation patients and those with hepatocellular carcinoma.

Medical care for patients with end-stage liver disease is complex – often involving serious infections, gastrointestinal bleeding, renal dysfunction, electrolyte disturbances, and worsening encephalopathy – and often involves frequent hospital readmissions, the researchers noted. Nonetheless, the findings highlight the need to consider steps such as advanced care planning and palliative care to help keep patients with end-stage liver disease from dying in acute care settings, they concluded. Such steps “may direct services toward more appropriate sectors, while reducing costs.”

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care supported the work. The researchers reported having no competing interests.

SOURCE: Kelly EM et al. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Jan 28. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2019.01.046.